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INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS N. EXARHAKIS
January 17, 2008
Tom Exarhakis was interviewed by LtCol Richard T. Tanner, USMC (Ret.), on January 17, 2008, concerning his duty with the American Armed Forces during World War II. This synopsis is prepared for submission to the Worcester County Veterans’ Memorial Foundation for their historical records. Mr. Exarhakis was apprised of the purpose of the interview and concurred in doing it.
Tom Exarhakis is a Greek-American born December 27, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He has three siblings: Emily, Claire, and Florence, all of whom attended grade school in Brooklyn. Later on, they, with their parents, moved to Ashbury, New Jersey, where they attended high school. Following graduation from high school, Tom applied for, was accepted to, and enrolled in Georgetown University. Pearl Harbor had been bombed a year or two before Tom was a freshman at Georgetown, and he began to question himself about what was going on in the world. He was enrolled in college, safe and secure, and he pondered what it was that he was doing and what he wanted to do now that his country was at war.
As he pondered these questions, he discovered that his youngest sister, Florence, to whom he was very close, had already enlisted in the Women’s Corp of the United States Army. Because of their close relationship, he decided that he should enlist and not be tucked away in a safe enclave such as Georgetown University. His oldest sister, Emily, was employed by the US Government at the War Department, working at the newly constructed Pentagon. Tom visited his local recruiter and tried to enlist. He tested well, but his eye sight was defective. He discovered that his left eye was unable to focus. Afraid he would be rejected and classified 4F, something for which many red blooded Americans prayed, he pleaded his case and convinced his recruiter that he wanted to join the Army, be deployed overseas, and fight for his country. He prevailed.
Tom entered boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in early 1943 and remained there for about four months. He experienced nothing unusual while undergoing training and endured the harassment and other pettiness often inflicted on draftees. His goal was to go overseas, especially when he found out that Florence had preceded him. She was initially assigned to the American Forces in Northern Africa and subsequently reassigned to the European mainland when the Allied forces began their push through Italy. Florence was able to read and write Greek, so Tom thinks she was engaged in intelligence work.
Having completed further training, Tom was granted a week’s leave. He was going to return home to spend a few days with his family when he received a cable cancelling his leave and ordering him and his former classmates to California for transportation to their respective overseas duty stations. By this time Tom had been assigned to the Army Air Corps but had not been assigned to a specific unit. Since Tom had paid for his ticket home, he hesitated about honoring the change of orders, but he decided the prudent course of action would be to do as directed. He reported to his designated B-29 base located in the Midwest, where he was ordered to travel across the country to California to join the XX Bomber Command operating in India for duty in the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) under the leadership of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. He was joined by several of his mates from boot camp on the trip.
Other boot camp friends received the same cancellation of leave orders and disregarded them. When they returned to their B-29 bases, they were told to board airplanes and were flown to their final duty destinations. Tom and those who had obeyed orders traveled across the country by train, arrived in California, and, instead of flying to India; were herded aboard Army troop transport ships and sailed to India.
Tom arrived in India in late 1943 and was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, XX Bomber Command commanded by MGen Curtis E. LeMay. His duties entailed working in the Operations, Plans, and Training (OPT) Section as the Mission and Operations Clerk. He was responsible for logging the departure and return times for all flights and tracking all materials such as bombs, ammunition, fuel, lubricants, spare parts, and food carried on the planes.
According to the Google website, “The XX Bomber Command’s primary aircraft was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine, propeller driven heavy bomber. The B-29 was selected as the ideal aircraft for the strategic missions they were assigned because of its advanced features such as a pressurized cabin, a central fire-control system, and remote controlled machine gun turrets. Although designed as a high-altitude daytime bomber, it flew more low-altitude nighttime incendiary bombing missions. It was the primary aircraft employed by the U.S. while conducting its firebombing campaign against Japan in the final months of World War II. This aircraft also carried the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.
“The XX Bomber Command was initially established to conduct air operations against Japan from four forward bases in southern China, with five main bases in India and to attack other targets in the region from China and India as needed. The region chosen to support these operations was the Chengdu region. This was an extremely costly scheme, as there was no overland connection available between India and China, and all the supplies had to be flown over the Himalayas.”
The aircraft selected to perform these supply missions was the Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando because of its large cabin and ability to haul heavy cargo. According to the Google website, “The Nationalist Chinese forces led by Chiang Kai-shek and Allied troops fighting under General Stillwell had no other source for food, ammunition, equipment, and other supplies. Hump [the Himalayas] pilots had to fly five hundred miles over mountain ranges that towered to fifteen thousand feet. It was not uncommon for the Hump pilots to make two or three round trips a day carrying out their assigned missions. The transports almost always operated at their maximum gross weight, often in icing conditions, monsoon storms, and severe turbulence. The Allies were forced to take this dangerous route when Japanese forces sealed the Chinese coast and captured Burma.” In addition to these supplies, the Hump pilots also were responsible for transporting bombs, aviation fuel, lubricants, and other critical repair parts for the B-29 Superfortresses based in the Chengdu region.
Tom was initially assigned to a base in India and supported the resupply operations to the Chengdu region from that base. He spent the majority of his time in India, but he did manage to take three flights across The Hump to observe the action from that vantage point. On one occasion he flew to the Chengdu on a resupply aircraft loaded with fifty-five gallon drums of petroleum and fuel. The entire flight had an estimated duration of approximately six hours. Since all of these flights occurred during the night hours, Tom managed to catch some sleep while airborne. His “bed” was lying on top of fifty-five gallon drums supported by rubber padding wedged between each barrel.
The combat and resupply operations conducted by XX Bomber Command continued until the entire B-29 effort was gradually shifted to the new bases in the Marianas, with the last B-29 combat mission from India flown on March 29, 1945. The need to use inconvenient bases in China for attacks against Japan ceased after the capture of the Marianas Islands in 1944.
Prior to the XX Bomber Command shifting its headquarters to the Marianas, MGen Jimmie Doolittle and his command group from the Eighth Air Force arrived to take control over the remaining air operations.
Perhaps the most famous B-29 in history is the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Another B-29, the Bockscar, dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki three days later. These two actions crippled Japan, causing them to surrender and ending World War II.
Late in the day on August 8,1945, Bockscar landed at an airfield located in the vicinity of what is now Kadena Air Force Base. Tom saw the crew deplane and walk along the tarmac, barely speaking. Their mood was somber. At the time, Tom knew nothing about the mission they had just completed or the reason for their solemn demeanor. It did not take long for him to understand what he had observed. The dramatic impact of their mission and the repercussions had just hit them. It was a very moving moment.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tom’s unit was relocated to Okinawa for a short time prior to being sent home for discharge. He arrived in Okinawa in time to see the devastation caused by the brutal ground war waged by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps against the Japanese.
Shortly thereafter the rotation of troops back home was announced. Rotation was based on a “points” program. Points were accumulated based on how long one had been deployed overseas and other factors. Tom had accumulated sufficient points to be eligible for rotation back to the States, enough points to be in the first group to rotate. Instead of taking “the slow boat to China” as he had when he left the States, he was able to hitch a ride on a B-29 Superfortress that was heading home. He flew from Okinawa to the Marianas Islands, where the B-29 had to be retrofitted. The machine gun turrets were removed from the aircraft and plastic “blisters” were installed in their place. Tom’s seat for the remainder of the flight from the Marianas to Hawaii and on to California was in the port blister just aft of the port engines. For hours at a time he sat on a cushion seat formally occupied by a turret machine gunner and observed the whitecaps breaking over the Pacific Ocean.
On one occasion Tom saw a puff of black smoke billow from the inboard port engine. He was not concerned until he saw it occur a second time. He called up to the flight deck and, over his headset, spoke to the co-pilot and told him what he had observed. The co-pilot told him not to worry but to report again if he saw another plume of smoke from that engine.
Tom was mustered out of active duty on November 27, 1945. He had served a total of two years and ten months on active duty and one year and ten months engaged in combat support activities. He attained the rank of Sergeant and is authorized to wear the Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal with five battle stars, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, and Victory Medal.
Tom is married to the love of his life, Eve Exarhakis, and currently resides in The Parke, Ocean Pines, Maryland. They have three children: Stephanie, Nick, and Anne, and six grandchildren. Tom describes himself as a “pack rat”. He still possesses copies of original orders assigning personnel from the Eighth Air Force to the XX Bomber Command, copies of newsletters printed and distributed by the Eighth Air Force to all personnel, pictures of various people, places, and objects taken while deployed overseas, and other items. While in the USAF, Tom wrote over four hundred letters to his parents, siblings, and others. We all congratulate him on a “job well done” and thank him profusely for his service to our country.